Written evidence from Tommy Greene (FOI 41)
This submission seeks to address the role and operation of the Cabinet Office Freedom of Information (FOI) Clearing House and in particular how members of the Cygnusreports.org campaign believe they were impacted directly and indirectly by the Cabinet Office’s role through the Clearing House in advising and coordinating the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) handling of our requests for vital pandemic-related information.
Specifically, a number of FOI requests concerning the late-2016 viral pandemic simulation, Exercise Cygnus, were delayed by a number of months or simply stonewalled altogether during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, when the government had confirmed it was using some of the data produced through the Cygnus operation to inform policy and decision-making.
FOI requests for key documents and findings that were developed as part of Cygnus were first made by the campaign in April 2020. A limited report into Cygnus was not published until October 2020 and further planning papers produced as part of the operation were not made public until July 2021, after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ordered the publication of two additional documents the government was withholding.
We have maintained throughout the last 18 months that this information is key to boosting public understanding of the pandemic - in turn, affording the public a greater role in shaping responses to an ongoing public health emergency - as well as assisting scientists and the press in their role to hold the government to account over decisions made. Our campaign encountered resistance to FOI requests for information collected not only through Exercise Cygnus, but also relating to almost a dozen other recent instances of unpublished pandemic planning work.
As regards Cygnus, crucial planning data was not disclosed in some cases for more than a year following the initial outbreak of the pandemic - by which point, more than 100,000 people in the UK had already died after testing positive for Covid-19. And, had it not been for the ICO’s ruling earlier this year, the triage and adult social care papers obtained by the campaign may never have been published.
The Information Commissioner highlighted that these reports contained information about “literally life and death decisions” and that the public interest in disclosing them was overwhelming.
Beyond the basic transparency point, DHSC’s decision - which we believe was informed by the advice of the Cabinet Office Clearing House - to delay FOI responses and to withhold some of this information over such a lengthy period of time also meant clinicians could be left in an invidious position of possible legal liability for on-the-ground care decisions taken at moments of acute pressure on the health service, since the withholding of these protocol documents meant that no national policy or guidelines on triage had been issued to NHS staff in the event that hospitals became overwhelmed.
Relevant web links:
 Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist. He was co-claimant in a 2020 legal challenge concerning the government’s failure to publish the findings of Exercise Cygnus, part of a wider campaign for greater transparency in Whitehall’s public engagement over its coronavirus pandemic response.